The Marvel universe is so damn weird. I don’t understand how mythical gods and aliens and ordinary assassin types are supposed to exist in the same universe on a reasonably level playing field. I don’t understand what S.H.I.E.L.D. is or who, exactly, it’s supposed to have jurisdiction over. I don’t understand the logic of the interdimensional portals—if there is any logic. But whatever. Writer-director Joss Whedon finds exactly the right tone for this nonsense, neither acting above it nor trying to puff it into something more serious than it is but simply embracing it in all its goofiness.
He meanders a bit, perhaps inevitable in a story about how disparate individuals come to unite around a common cause, but the journey is colorful and clever and fun. Classic cinema it’s not, but with its endearing sketches and witty banter, The Avengers is better than it has any right to be.
Following up on both Iron Man movies, Captain America, and Thor—plus The Incredible Hulk, technically, though the lead actors don’t match up—The Avengers brings together those titular characters (played by Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, and Mark Ruffalo, respectively), as well as Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), to stop Thor’s sociopathic brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), from using what looks like a spectacularly ill-advised interplanetary alliance to conquer earth with an alien army.
The alien army stuff is pretty stupid, but it’s also pretty much beside the point. The point is getting everyone together, despite their differences, which gives the actors the opportunity to play off one another—and Whedon the chance to explore the group dynamics, something he virtually perfected in creating the cult-adored ensemble shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. Unlike some other writers known for their distinctive banter, Whedon has a knack for grounding quips in character. Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, for example, express themselves very differently. Their scenes together are witty and sharp in large part because Whedon never sacrifices character for a punch line.
The big action sequences are well done (though Black Widow’s first scene is basically straight out of Buffy with a few contextual changes, which probably should have annoyed but which I mostly found rather cute). The filmmakers get a lot of mileage out of how the superheroes work together, playing their powers off each other, which makes for some creative bits of choreography. But it’s the character stuff that truly makes The Avengers come alive, which is refreshing in a big summer blockbuster. I imagine it must be nice for the actors, too, to have actual people to play amid all the explosions and green-screened insanity, and they make the most of it.
Ruffalo somehow manages to communicate Bruce “The Hulk” Banner’s inner torment without becoming morose. Watching how the other characters relate to Banner is fun, too: the otherwise dauntless, imperturbable Black Widow betrays real fear when trying to recruit a reluctant Banner—a great touch—and the rapport between Banner and Stark, both scientists as well as superheroes (albeit with markedly different relationships with their powers), brings out the geekiest in both. It’s a side of Stark that Downey doesn’t always get to play, as Stark’s narcissistic swagger tends to overshadow his ingenuity, so it’s fun to see him get to explore some different shades of the man.
Captain America and Thor, on the other hand, aren’t super-smart along with being super-strong, etc., and as an unfrozen dude from the 1940s and an exile from Asgard, they lack a lot of contemporary cultural references to boot. The movie does a great job of playing without their ignorance without making them stupid—a fine balancing act. Evans and Hemsworth are probably key here, too. Simple, upright types tend to become dull killjoys on screen, but both actors have the charisma and the comic timing to keep their characters sparking.
In the end, it’s all so much fluff, with some painfully noticeable plot holes and an allegedly worldwide threat that is defeated in the space of Manhattan. I simply can’t take The Avengers seriously—and given my druthers, I do prefer movies I can take seriously. But then again, who wants to be serious on a Saturday afternoon?